Photo by Tedd Henn

A July in Baltimore without Artscape?

It may sound like heresy to some, but the head of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts (BOPA) wants to explore other options.

Donna Drew Sawyer, CEO of the agency that produces the annual arts festival, said yesterday that she and her staff would like to consider whether the three-day event should continue to be held in mid-July, typically the hottest time of the year in Baltimore.

Although the sprawling festival had “an excellent year” despite unusually high temperatures, she said, “we have to decide if the middle of July is still the best time to have this event.”

Sawyer raised the issue during BOPA’s quarterly board meeting.

The quasi-public organization touts Artscape as “America’s largest free arts festival” and says it typically draws 350,000 people to midtown Baltimore over three days. Sawyer was named BOPA’s CEO in July of 2018, and yesterday’s BOPA board meeting was the first since the 38th annual Artscape festival was held from July 19 to July 21.

In remarks to the board, Sawyer noted the past three summers have either been exceptionally hot or exceptionally stormy. (This year, the high temperature on July 17 was 98 degrees at BWI Thurgood Marshall International Airport, and the heat index value was between 105 and 115 degrees, causing authorities to issue an excessive heat watch.)

Sawyer said she believes the phenomenon of climate change has a significant effect on events such as Artscape, which is largely held outdoors, and will continue to do so.

She told the board BOPA needs to be prepared for the effects of more climate change and that moving Artscape to a different time of the year may be one response. She was bringing up the issue out of deference “to our audience and also our staff,” she said, and noted climate change is “not a joke.

After the meeting, Sawyer explained she had just returned from a summit on climate change and the arts that was organized by Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit advocacy organization, and held in Sundance, Utah.

She said arts organizations around the country are grappling with the effects of climate change on events and programs. “It was a big topic of conversation. Everybody had the same issue.”

BOPA doesn’t conduct an exact attendance count for Artscape, largely because it’s a free event and it’s difficult to tally everyone. Sawyer said she believes the extreme heat did not cause turnout to dip.

“Our attendance did not change at all on Friday night,” she said. “We were a little lighter on Saturday, and Sunday we were fine. So I think the total attendance was about the same. It’s just that as the weather got hotter, it was really rough on people. Not just the audience but especially the staff.”

The CEO said there’s not enough time to change the dates for Artscape in 2020, again tentatively set for mid-July. But beyond 2020, “that’s something the staff feels like we should consider… because things are not going to get better, due to climate change.”

Sawyer said BOPA is “laser-focused” right now on planning for Brilliant Baltimore, a 10-day event that combines the Baltimore Book Festival and Light City festival, from Nov. 1-10.

At some point after Brilliant Baltimore, Sawyer said, she would like to determine whether July is the best time of year for Artscape–and if not, when would be better.

“That is on the agenda,” she said. “That will probably take place some time next year. For me as the CEO of this organization, I have to be cognizant of how our events affect the audience and the staff.”

Besides looking at Artscape, Sawyer said she’d like to consider whether other BOPA events are held at the right time of year. “We have to look holistically.”

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

One reply on “Is July too hot for Artscape? BOPA head wants to explore other options”

  1. Artscape should be held in June or September.
    It’s too hot and to stormy in July. I had to leave events because of the weather previous years and didn’t attend last year.

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